Artificial light

Concord UMC
October 7, 2012

Psalm 8 (CEB)
For the music leader. According to the Gittith. A psalm of David.

LORD, our Lord, how majestic
is your name throughout the earth!
You made your glory higher than heaven!
2 From the mouths of nursing babies
you have laid a strong foundation
because of your foes,
in order to stop vengeful enemies.
3 When I look up at your skies,
at what your fingers made—
the moon and the stars
that you set firmly in place—
4 what are human beings
that you think about them;
what are human beings
that you pay attention to them?
5 You’ve made them only slightly less than divine,
crowning them with glory and grandeur.
6 You’ve let them rule over your handiwork,
putting everything under their feet—
7 all sheep and all cattle,
the wild animals too,
8 the birds in the sky,
the fish of the ocean,
everything that travels the pathways of the sea.
9 LORD, our Lord, how majestic
is your name throughout the earth!

I go to church with a man named Billy Hix. Actually, I go to church with two men whose names sound like “Billy Hix.” Billy H-I-C-K-S is a retired bank president, while Billy H-I-X is a teacher at Motlow State Community College. It’s that second Billy, Billy H-I-X, I want to talk about.
Billy H-I-X teaches computer sciences at Motlow, but his real passion is talking about, and teaching about, space. He’s worked with organizations like NASA and the National Space Foundation to help teachers use space to get kids passionate about science and mathematics. In the era in which both Billy and I grew up, every little boy wanted to be an astronaut. Today, though, more kids need to be given that little nudge into careers in science or mathematics. Experts use the acronym STEM for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, the four subject areas that we as a country have to excel at if we’re to remain competitive in an international market.
Billy consults with teachers, and he conducts STEM day camps during the summer at which kids learn about science with hands-on experiments and with field trips to the Space Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Billy has also been a United Methodist lay speaker, and I don’t think he’d mind me repeating something he used once in a program at our church.
It was a unique message; he used various astronomical photos to convey to us the size of God, with Psalm 19:1 as his scripture. Like Psalm 8, our Lectionary passage for this morning, Psalm 19 uses the heavens – the sky – as evidence of God’s majesty.
“Heaven is declaring God’s glory,” writes the Psalmist, “the sky is proclaiming his handiwork.”
Billy showed us, projected on a screen, a remarkable deep field photo taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in the mid-1990s. He happened to be touring Kennedy Space Center when he saw astronomers poring over a 14-foot print of this photo. They told him they were looking for stars, and were pleased that they hadn’t found any. This surprised Billy; to him, the photo seemed to be covered with stars.
Then the astronomers explained to him that every single point of light on the photo was a galaxy, not an individual star. They had deliberately aimed the telescope between any of the visible stars towards what you or I would see as black, empty space. And they used the power of this telescope to see something far beyond the visible stars. All told, there were 3,500 galaxies appearing in the photo.
Then, one of the astronomers asked Billy if he knew how much of the night sky the photo represented. The astronomer licked his finger and reached to the floor to pick up a grain of sand. It was Florida, not far from the ocean, and the sand tended to get tracked inside the building. The astronomer held his finger out at arm’s length and told Hix that the entire photo — all 3,500 galaxies — represented no more than a grain of sand at arm’s length in the night sky. Millions more such photos could be taken in other directions, representing other grains of sand.
We can’t see all those galaxies when we look at the sky from our front porches. In fact, today we can’t see nearly as many stars in the night sky as our ancestors did 100 years ago. There are still just as many stars now as there were then; we just can’t see them. Astronomers call it “light pollution.” Our cities and population centers are so brightly lit at night that the light is scattered by the atmosphere. We may think the night sky is black, but it’s not as black as it used to be, at least not when you look at it from where we live.
If you’ve ever been to someplace really remote, you’ve seen a night sky that for most of us, even out here in the country, no longer exists. I remember when I went on my first foreign mission trip, to Nicaragua, in 2003. We were far, far away from the nearest big city, and even the smaller towns in a third-world country aren’t as brightly lit as a town the same size would be here in the U.S.
We had a beautiful clear sky one night as one of my teammates and I were walking from the church back to the home where we had been staying that week. I looked up at the sky and I was just amazed by the number of stars. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before.
This particular psalm is listed as being one of David’s. David, of course, had no worries about light pollution, and his view of the night sky must have been even more spectacular than the one I saw in Nicaragua. David grew up as a shepherd, and it’s easy to imagine him on a hillside at night, with the sheep, looking up into the night sky.

“When I look up at your skies,” he writes, “at what your fingers made — the moon and the stars that you set firmly in place — what are human beings that you think about them; what are human beings that you pay attention to them?”
The spectacular view of the night sky was a humbling thing, even to the ancient people, who had no idea what the stars actually were. The night sky was impressive, but they thought it was not that far away. Today, we know that each of those stars is a sun, just like ours, and many have their own planets. Each of the galaxies in that deep field image has a hundred billion stars, give or take. When we even attempt to imagine the size of our universe, we start counting in billions and trillions and quadrillions until we run out of zeroes.
It’s even more humbling for us than it was for the psalmist. We now know that we’re even less than that grain of sand in the night sky that the NASA astronomer showed to Billy Hix.
The mind-boggling size of the universe, and the beauty and symmetry of even its smallest details, are incredible reminders to us of God’s remarkable nature. God is big enough to have created the universe, and yet God knows the hair on our heads, and every sparrow that falls from the sky.
Even more incredible, God pays attention to us. God has made us “only slightly less than divine, crowning [us] with glory and grandeur.”
That knowledge is both crushing and hopeful and confusing. Why would God choose us? What do we have to offer?

What God desires of us is a relationship. The creator of every galaxy in that deep field image wants you and me to come before him with our cares and concerns. The God who set fire to each star wants your heart to burn with love for him. The God who created the universe wants us to look up at it and see the artist’s signature.
But there’s a problem, and we mentioned it earlier: light pollution, distracting us and obscuring our vision of God’s majesty. Just as the prevalence of artificial light in our atmosphere makes it physically difficult to gaze at the stars, the prevalence of artificial light in our lives makes it harder for us to look upon God’s majesty and remind ourselves of who we are, who God is, and what our place is in God’s universe.
The sources of artificial light are, individually, good things. It’s a good thing to have a well-lit parking lot so that when you’re heading out of Walmart with a basket full of stuff, you can feel safe getting to your car. It’s a good thing to be able to watch a football game or a baseball game at night. It’s a good thing that kids don’t have to do their homework by candlelight.
The Psalmist says that we have been allowed to rule over God’s handiwork, and that’s certainly the case, much more in our own day than in the days of King David. We can turn night into day. We can turn rivers into lakes, and cut a road through a mountain. We can split the atom and manipulate even smaller particles. We can genetically engineer plants to bring out certain qualities and eliminate others.

There are risks involved in using such great power. We can harm God’s creation by transforming it. The same drug that for one person provides compassionate relief from pain becomes, in someone else’s hands, a source of addiction which breaks hearts and destroys lives.
We can also travel in ways never imagined by our forebears. I can get on a plane in Nashville one day and be standing in Nairobi, Kenya, the next day. I’ve made that trip five times, for mission trips through a group called LEAMIS International Ministries. It’s an amazing thing to be able to travel a third of the way around the globe to engage in ministry. But you’re quickly reminded that this isn’t the normal state of affairs.
There’s seven hours’ time difference between here and Nairobi. In the old days, when people crossed the ocean by ship, your body had a chance to gradually adjust to the change in schedule. But when trans-Atlantic travel became easy, we learned a new phrase: “jet lag.” Our body is designed to operate on a 24-hour rhythm, and when we suddenly shift that rhythm so dramatically it becomes hard to adjust. If you’ve ever made a trip like that, you know it takes a few days for your body to get used to the new schedule. I learned to take melatonin, which is a supplement you can find in the vitamin aisle. It helps your body re-adjust for the first few days in a new time zone.
Many of of the ways in which we can change the world around us are, individually, good. But they can have unintended consequences. Sometimes, when you add them all together, they cause problems. We have hunted species to extinction, and scientists believe we’ve even changed the climate.

Similarly, there are a lot of individual things in our lives that are good, and that God intended for us to participate in and enjoy. But sometimes adding them all together causes light pollution, washes out the sky and keeps us from seeing the majesty of God.
In today’s society, we’re pulled in so many different directions. There are important things like work, and family, and there are newer distractions like TV or the Internet. We have more things fighting for our attention and our resources than ever before.
These things, as beneficial as they can be individually, can collectively keep us from looking up at the sky to see the majesty of God.
So we have to be deliberate about looking up at the stars. We have to make the time; we have to change our attitude.
It takes effort to look up at the stars.
NASA, looking for a view of the stars that would be unaffected by earth’s atmosphere, launched the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990. But, if you remember, they discovered that it didn’t work right. In 1993, a Space Shuttle crew made repairs to the telescope that enabled it to take the incredible images of the vastness of space which those scientists showed to Billy Hix.
NASA is now making plans for the next powerful space telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to be launched in about 2018.
What are our tools, our telescopes for looking up at the glory of God’s creation?
Obviously, the Bible is one of them. Our brothers and sisters in Christ are also important, as are spiritual leaders like our clergy.
It takes a decision on our part, and it takes deliberate attention on our part, but of course we also must rely on what John Wesley called God’s sustaining grace in our lives. We have to make sure that God is a priority in our lives. We have to open our hearts, and open our eyes, so that we don’t miss the chance to look up and see God’s majestic beauty in the night sky.

One thought on “Artificial light

  1. Enjoyed it and glad to have a record of Billy’s description of the photo too. I taught Sunday school today, guess what? It was on Stephen! I told them about your editing suggestions and my thoughts and felt that me having a Stephen lesson wasn’t just coincidence but God knew I needed more Stephen action and insight for my Donkey!

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